Actions of governor hurt budget process

Published 8:49 am Thursday, September 11, 2008

Returning home late Wednesday last week, I read the past weeks’ papers including comments by candidates for county and city offices. I noted statements to the effect that the county budget needs to be brought under control as well as levy growth.

As a former county employee as director of the Human Services Department I saw the effect state and federal legislative and administrative actions regularly had on county finances. Forty years ago it was possible to anticipate what would likely happen in the next two to three years. No longer — there was uncertainty about financial obligations and state/federal funding with some negative changes taking place after county budgets were set.

The current governor made a pledge, before taking office, to not raise state taxes. Early on with the state facing a deficit he led the Legislature to enact the transfer of some state expenses to counties including long-term care for disabled persons in nursing homes and other facilities. Some state aids were reduced. Later the governor was in town and while at the airport told the audience that they should hold local officials’ feet to the fire if they raised taxes. Those state actions increased county obligations by about $1 million. There was a temporary (about 15-month) partial reprieve as the federal Medicaid program funding was temporarily increased and restricted state funding reductions. Later there were legislative efforts to reverse those shifts; however, much of the cost continued to be a county obligation.

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Neither the governor nor the Legislature took action to eliminate any state mandates or give counties increased flexibility in handling those cost shifts. There was a bill passed that gave counties the ability to submit recommended mandate revisions to one of the state agencies. The Freeborn County Board approved submission of eight or nine changes — some of which would have required making hard decisions about service reductions. To my knowledge the “state” has done nothing with any of the Freeborn or other county submissions.

There have been years when the state severely restricted county levies causing deficit spending. State and/or federal laws forbid discontinuing paying for chemical dependency treatment, not assisting people in matters of obtaining child support, limiting the number of people for whom nursing home care is provided and numerous other obligations. In most states child protection, foster care services and juvenile correctional placement costs are primarily paid for through state funding sources — not in Minnesota. The Freeborn County Board was supportive in finding ways to build an operating reserve, without raising the levy for the department for many years, as a cushion against the time when cost increases would happen beyond its control. I would submit that the County Board has been very conscientious in developing the preliminary and final budget and levy proposals.

Darryl Meyer

Albert Lea